Spain: A Macroeconomic Assessment

We keep hearing from the soothsayers who suggest Europe is in the recovery phase of a protracted recession. The latest to join the chorus is the British newspaper The Guardian:

Spain’s economic recovery was underlined as its manufacturing sector recorded its greatest activity in seven years, but the financial crisis has left its mark with separate figures showing a sharp rise in people leaving the country. A snapshot of the state of Spanish factories combining output, orders and employment showed activity rose to a seven-year high in June. The Markit PMI increased to 54.6 from 52.9 in July – with a reading above 50 indicating expansion. That puts growth in Spain’s manufacturing sector ahead of Germany, France and Italy and is further evidence that its economy is outperforming the eurozone as whole.

To begin with, it is not very hard to outperform the euro zone, where GDP growth is as close to zero as anything can be. Private consumption is exceptionally weak, and even the OECD has been forced to downgrade its previously optimistic growth forecast for the EU.

But more importantly, a rise in an index is not a rise in actual economic activity. For that to happen, there must be a change for the better in national accounts data. More on that in a moment – first we return to the Guardian story:

The struggling Spanish car industry in particular is showing signs of recovery thanks in part to a government incentive scheme, now in its sixth year, for people to upgrade their vehicles. Christian Schulz, senior economist at Berenberg bank, said Spain was benefiting from the reforms that it put in place in response to the financial crisis. “If we add similarly impressive readings for the Spanish services sector, we can safely conclude that Spain is reaping the rewards of its tough labour market reforms of 2012 and is becoming a mainstay of eurozone growth,” he said.

The program referred to is one where government offers 1,000 euros toward the down payment on a new car that costs no more than 25,000 euros, provided the buyer trades in a 7-10-year-old, less fuel efficient car. According to at least one report this has contributed to the sales of 300,000 cars in Spain in the last couple of years.

There are a couple of problems with programs like these. First of all, they create a sense of entitlement among consumers, who learn to expect their government to chip in. Today it is toward cars, tomorrow – who knows? Homes? Furniture? Haircuts?

Secondly, it skews the car market. People buy smaller cars than they otherwise would, sending signals of demand to car manufacturers that are not based on free-market conditions but government subsidies. When those subsidies end because they are too costly for government, manufacturers will be left there with production capacity designed not based on the free market, but on defaulted government promises.

Third, the rebate increases the purchasing power of consumers who would otherwise not be able to afford a car. As a direct result, consumers can get approved for car loans with weaker ability to repay them than if there had been no tax-paid incentives program. What happens when those consumers default on their loans?

It remains to be seen how important this program is for the weak but nevertheless increase in private consumption that we can see in Spain’s GDP numbers.

LB7714Spain2

Adjusted for inflation, Spanish private consumption fell for 13 quarters in a row, from third quarter 2010 to third quarter 2013. In the fourth quarter of last year and the first this year, households increased their spending by, respectively, one and two percent.

Does this signal a recovery? It is too early to tell, especially since there was a similar spike in early 2010. But it is entirely likely that the car-buyer incentives program has artificially boosted the shift in consumer spending from decline to increase. This means that the reversal from worse to better – at least in consumer spending – is the result of government spending. Since Spanish government finances are in bad shape due to the economic depression, this only means that the macroeconomic problems that the Spanish government is trying to solve are just being shuffled around.

There is more evidence of this. In the figure above, the strongest growth is not in private consumption but in exports. In the past 17 quarters, since the beginning of 2010, Spanish gross exports have increased by an annual rate of 6.7 percent on average. By contrast, private consumption contracted by an annual average of 1.3 percent over the same period. This marks a shift in importance for GDP, with private consumption slightly declining as growth driver, and exports rising in its place.

Arithmetically, this makes a lot of sense. A variable that constitutes a small share of GDP grows rapidly for a long period of time. At some point it ceases to be a small variable and instead becomes important for GDP. When it does, its effect on GDP increases, accelerating GDP growth while exports still grow at the same pace as before.

However, this is a problem from a macroeconomic viewpoint. The Spaniards are not getting wealthier from the exports boom. Private consumption is not moving anywhere, and when it seems to be increasing it is ostensibly because of a government subsidy in one particular area. (There is also a home buyer’s program, but let’s not even get into that today…)

But it is not just private consumption that shows that there is no real domestic recovery in Spain:

LB7714Spain

While, as the green line shows, the exports share of GDP has been growing steadily during the Great Recession, the orange line shows that business investments have been on a steady decline (again as share of GDP). And this decline is all the more dramatic: Spanish businesses have decreased their investments, in fixed prices, for five straight years now.

Yes – five straight years. Since the first quarter of 2009 there is not a single quarter with growth in business investments. Measured in fixed prices, the amount that Spanish businesses spent on investments in the first quarter of 2014 was only two thirds of what they spent in the first quarter of 2009. This has happened while, again, exports have been growing solidly.

So long as businesses do not reverse the downward trend in investments on a sustained basis, there can be no recovery in the Spanish economy. Growing exports will not generate a recovery, especially not when the growth is concentrated to manufacturing. Modern manufacturers in Europe often import parts and assemble them on European soil. This means that growing exports are followed by growing imports of manufacturing inputs – in essence a passing-through of products that does not have any positive repercussions for the rest of the economy.

In January I explained that Germany has precisely this problem. If the exports were a sign of recovery in other EU countries, there would be hope for a recovery across Europe. But that is not the case: everywhere you look in Europe, private consumption and other domestic-spending variables are growing very reluctantly, if at all. The exports that the Euroepans are so happy about are, in other words, bound for other continents, without having any real positive effect on the European economy itself.

Europe will not return to growth, prosperity and full employment until its political leadership realizes what the problem is: the big, burdensome welfare state and its high taxes and anti-productive set of incentives that steer people away from self sufficiency and straight into life long career of sloth, indolence and government dependency.